There are many different approaches to slowing down and managing stress, but one that appears to be gaining popularity, especially with the pandemic, is Yin Yoga.
Named after the most introspective and receptive quality in the Tao according to Chinese philosophy, Yin is a very slow and passive form of Yoga, a practice of conscious relaxation. Instead of focusing onactivating and stretching our muscles with repetitive movements and physically strenuous postures like in Yang styles of Yoga like Vinyasa Flow or Ashtanga, Yin targets our connective tissues by holding static poses, mostly done seated or lying down on the mat, for anything between 3 to 20 minutes (even if most of the sessions go for 5-10 minutes-long stretches).
This is a gentle and gradual practice, which invites us to find stillness, explore our own mindful edge, and loosen chronic stress, so that our body can become not only more flexible but also more relaxed and free from tension. “Unhurried postures unstained by striving” is how Sarah Powers, one of the most renowned Yin Yoga teachers describes it: instead of pushing and forcing, we are invited to breathe slowly, let go of control, and surrender to gravity.
Yin Yoga draws both from Hatha Yoga and Traditional Chinese Medicine: the sequences of postures are studied to stimulate the flow of Chi (energy) along specific meridians in our fascia, running through our organs.
You can imagine this as a form of acupuncture without needles: the prolonged compression and stretches create a stress in different areas of the body, which when released produces healing effects in what is called the “rebound” phase. Yin Yoga is not about the aesthetic of the pose, about “doing it right”: the goal is to listen to ourselves and to be mindful of our sensations, observing them as they grow or quieten. Once we are in our safe range of stretch (think about 60 80% of intensity), we try not to move out of the pose unless we experience pain or don’t feel anything at all. In a stationary condition, the muscles don’t work, so they don’t need oxygen, therefore our breath can be quiet, our mind can slow down and our nervous system can shift into the parasympathetic state, which is responsible for healing our body and reducing the symptoms of stress.
On the physical level, Yin Yoga can help us stretch out our tight muscles, improve the blood flow in specific areas, support the health of our joints and fascia by contrasting the natural thinning of the connective tissues as we grow older, and increase overall flexibility in a safe way: as we get in the postures extremely slowly, we have time to listen to our body and find the right amount of stretch that works for us without causing strain to our knees, hips, neck or back.
Furthermore, Yin is a great introduction to mindfulness and meditation: by paying attention to our sensations on purpose we learn to concentrate, to breathe through discomfort and to ignore distracting thoughts about the future or the past, something which can reduce feelings of anxiety and overwhelm, and make us feel more psychologically resilient to our daily life challenges.
This practice also helps us get to know ourselves better and notice how different configurations make us feel, what is easy and what is not for our anatomy, where we usually hold tension, how we react to discomfort, what’s our own safe range of motion, all important information we can use in any other movement practice to reduce the risk of injury and maximise our results.
– Wear layers: As Yin Yoga doesn’t involve much movement and due to the relaxation response our body temperature tends to drop, you might want to wear warm and comfortable clothes, perhaps socks, and may be have a blanket handy to cover your body in the cold seasons.
– Use props: When approaching the poses, you want to come to a place where you feel sensations of stretch without overdoing or experiencing pain. This is why the use of props is highly recommended: Yoga bolsters, bricks, blocks, straps, but also cushions or books could also be perfect when practicing at home. When your bones are properly supported, your muscles can more easily relax, so the stress of the pose can go in the deeper connective tissues.
– Don’t plan anything too active after: As Yin Yoga leaves us feeling rested, sometimes even spaced out and ready for a nice sleep, it is recommended you give yourself extra time to absorb these sensations of calm and relaxation before jumping into any mentally or physically intense activities.
Vanessa Michielon is a Movement specialist empowering people of all walks of life to embrace Yoga, Pilates and Dance in order to improve physical health and achieve a balanced state of mind. She is trained in Yin Yoga, Vinyasa Flow, Yoga Therapy for Anxiety and Advanced Yoga Psychology.
Image credits: Yoga and photo by Cecilia Cristolovean